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Cold Weather’s Camping Challenges

In the Boundary Waters, Minn. — Lying in my toasty sleeping bag, I waited for the crackling fire in the small wood stove to warm the frigid canvas tent.

My three camping companions already had emerged from their bags on this bitter cold morning and fired the stove.

Though it was mid-March, the temperature outside in this frozen wilderness was an eyebrow-raising, finger-numbing 24 below zero.

“Ah, spring in the North Woods,” said Steve Piragis.

“If you’re going to winter camp, it might as well be winter,” said Sam Cook, thawing a pot of frozen water on the stove.

Last weekend, there was no hint of spring in the million-acre BWCA. Instead, winter’s grip held firm as four of us journeyed near Ely on a three-day camping-fishing adventure. We snowshoed 3 miles through woods and wetlands and across a small lake, each of us towing 6-foot-long sleds loaded with perhaps 75 pounds of gear to a boundary waters campsite cloaked beneath 3 feet of snow, framed by towering red pines.

Camp was near a rocky point where we believed crappies swam below 38 inches of ice.

But the real purpose of our trip was to return to the BWCA during its winter splendor and camp and fish with old friends. Tens of thousands of people paddle these border waters during spring, summer and fall, but few explore the area in winter. March, with its longer days and (usually) warmer temperatures, normally is ideal.

We found everything we wanted: Solitude (we never saw another soul), a moonlit walk on the lake under a canopy of stars, fresh wolf tracks and plump crappies later fried golden brown.

It also was a reunion of sorts.

Cook, Piragis and I met in Ely in 1976. Piragis stayed and built an outfitting and retail business; Cook moved to Duluth, where he is the longtime outdoor writer at the Duluth News Tribune, and I’ve been plying the newspaper trade in Minneapolis for 27 years. We’ve paddled and camped together many times over the years, but never together in winter.

Joining us was Gary Thornbloom, a friend of Piragis’ from Pennsylvania who has paddled the boundary waters and wanted to experience the wilderness in winter.

Taking the Chill Out

Until recent years, my winter camping lodging choice was a “quinzee” snow shelter. Shovel snow into a pile, let it set, then hollow out a cave. It’s like sleeping in a tomb - total silence. And the snow insulates, making it remarkably warm.

But there’s no drying wet clothes, and no getting out of the cold. Cooking is done outside, in the elements.

Heated tents have changed my thinking. Last weekend, we took a 10-by-15-foot canvas tent, with a 1-by-2-foot steel stove that produced sauna-like heat. We peeled off hats, jackets and gloves and hung wet gear to dry. Spending hours around the stove, we fed it split cedar and balsam while cooking meals and spinning tales.

What about the weight of that tent and stove? Not a major issue, if you don’t have to carry it.

In winter, there are two ways to haul gear: on your back, or on a sled. We’ve long used sleds called pulks, which are attached to poles and a harness.

That meant the 33-pound tent, 24-pound stove, small cooler (to keep food from freezing solid), ice auger, two axes and two saws were no problem. Neither were the frozen pot of chili, box of vintage merlot, or tub of pickled herring. Or the cross-country skis, boots and snowshoes.

Traveling and camping in winter are far different from the summer versions. There is little room for error. Frostbite or hypothermia are possibilities for those unprepared or lacking knowledge. Thin ice can kill. Water bottles freeze. (Put them in your sleeping bag at night, along with camera batteries.)

And despite the stove we hauled in, at night the fire goes out. Also an eye-opener is a sit-down visit to the campsite’s primitive latrine, nearly buried in snow.

Fish Were Biting

Our sojourn began one Friday with the temperature a balmy 32 degrees. Unloading our truck, we snowshoed into the woods, pulling sleds on a trail packed by previous visitors. The trail was firm, but when we ventured into drifted bogs, we sometimes broke through crusted snow and fell.

Clad only in polypropylene underwear, shirt, nylon wind pants and a baseball cap, I soon was drenched in sweat. When we finally arrived at the lake, the snow atop it was soft, and when the crust collapsed, slush seeped up from below.

But a cold snap blew in, bringing freezing temperatures the next two nights. The trail and lake froze firmly, allowing us to ski, walk and snowshoe atop the crust the rest of the trip.

We made camp, gathered wood and ate dinner, then climbed into our bags and let the fire die.

The next morning, with a temperature near zero, we inhaled eggs with cheese and salsa on tortillas, slab bacon and hot coffee. Then, under a cobalt sky and warm sun, we walked onto the lake to fish. We drilled holes near fresh wolf tracks and scat - signs of late-night visitors. Our auger was barely long enough to penetrate the thick ice.

We fished with small jigs and waxworms, sitting or standing with our backs to a cool breeze.

“Oh, there we go,” Cook said after only a few minutes, pulling up a glistening 11.5-inch crappie. “Nice fish.”

Soon Piragis landed one, too.

“Bone fishing in the Caribbean is overrated,” he quipped.

Over several hours we brought up a dozen dandy fish. The action wasn’t fast, but it was steady. Afterward, we retreated to camp to filet the fish alongside a pan of warm water to thaw our numb fingers. We fried the filets and, with pasta, corn and wine, celebrated.

“A good day,” Piragis said as he offered a toast.

That night, under a sky splattered with stars and a full moon that cast long shadows, we walked to the center of the lake and inhaled the stark, cold, quiet beauty. Unlike summer in the boundary waters, there were no neighboring campfires. No loons calling, bugs buzzing or waves splashing.

Just silence.

The next morning, we walked out.

Thornbloom, the newcomer, was impressed.

“It was everything I hoped it would be,” he said.